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September 18, 2010

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This of course looks like it has nothing to do with politics or economics or any of the usual subjects of this blog. I think it actually does have quite a lot to do with both politics and economics, but it's not an easy point to bring across. I have a great respect for both liberal democracy and the socialist-capitalist mixed economy that the US enjoys. But they're not the only ways that society can be organized. People do not only do things because they are paid to do them. The material trappings of modern life are nice, but not essential to happiness.

Mainstream dialogue about economics and politics says nothing whatsoever about the value of doing interesting and fulfilling work, about the value of respect from one's peers, about the sheer pleasure in doing exactly what you want, about the possibility that people could just be nicer to each other. Being nicer goes a long way. Now there are virtuous and vicious circles in niceness. And it's easier to be nice if you're not lacking some immediate physical need. But it is not necessary to be rich.

I don't know the secret sauce. I do know that it's possible to be nicer to one another, though, because I've seen it. Most people would be much happier if everyone they knew was nicer and happier than if their salary was doubled. We don't talk about that, primarily because it doesn't help to sell anything, and for decades we have only talked about things that can be used to sell things.

Budding economists could do worse than spend a week on the playa. You'd learn a thing or two about "utility".

I drove across the Balck Rock desert many many years ago. We left Salt lake at sunset and drove through a series of increasingly weird and depreesing little towns, lots and lots of neon over crummy little all night joints. Stopping for gas was like straying into the Three Penny opera in modern dress Anyway not my thing at all. We turned onto a gravel road and headed out into the desert. As the sun cam up the mountains of California came inot view inncredibly sheer, rising straight up out of the flat desrt floor. I can onkly imagine what they looked like to the Donnor party. Of course by time the Donnor party folks could see the mountains they were already getting homicidal toward each other...but we had a truck and water and food and no expecratio of dying so I enjoyed the strange sere sympicity of the desert.

What has this got to do with Burning Man? Nothing. Thanks for the post. I think I would get a kick out of Burning Man.

"They're happy, I think, because nobody is telling them what to do, and it turns out that when nobody is telling anyone what to do, everybody is really, really nice."

Well, that, plus all the Ecstasy.

"They're happy, I think, because nobody is telling them what to do, and it turns out that when nobody is telling anyone what to do, everybody is really, really nice."

This statement says a lot and contains much truth. And when someone tells them what is good for the commonweal. that's the beginning of their unhappiness and they become not so nice anymore.

It's always nice to discover a fellow burner.

And when someone tells them what is good for the commonweal. that's the beginning of their unhappiness and they become not so nice anymore.

Yes, but there are shades of difference between telling people "You aren't allowed to drive 85 down residential streets," "You aren't allowed to dump your toxic waste in the municipal reservoir" and "You aren't allowed to marry your same-sex partner."

Well, Phil, I agree with you. The ability to tell the difference between those things that we need to agree are necessary for the commonweal and those things some sub-group wants (but are not necessary) can help one develop a concept for a live and let live society.

If you want to legalize prostitution, pot and gay marriage, while keeping speeding and pollution illegal, GOB, I'm right there with you.

'If you want to legalize prostitution, pot and gay marriage, while keeping speeding and pollution illegal, GOB, I'm right there with you.'

I have no objection to gay marriage. As for pot and prostitution, government intervention costs far more than any derived benefits, IMHO, so, yes, I would de-criminalize these (although I don't recommend these behaviors to anyone as being very useful.

I'm so sorry to have missed it this year. My boyfriend and I met out there back in 07, but we couldn't make it out this year. We'll be out next year. Stop by Gigsville if ya like things that go boom.

I've never been to Burning Man and I've never been to a NASCAR race but I know people who've been to both and, I honestly don't see any difference. A small core of true believers surrounded by a sea of partiers. The race itself, as well as the sopposed rejection of mass culture, give attendees an excuse to get wasted and meet up with people you haven't seen in a year.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

This statement says a lot and contains much truth. And when someone tells them what is good for the commonweal. that's the beginning of their unhappiness and they become not so nice anymore.

No doubt. Unfortunately, life isn't always a week-long, clothing-optional get-your-freak-on party.

And even Burning Man has rules -- lots of rules, actually -- that govern folks' behavior while on site, as well as rules designed to limit the damage that the event causes to the playa. All in the name of the common weal, natch.

So, even Burning Man is not a libertarian utopia. It's just a big, big party. The rules at parties are different than they are in day-to-day life, but there are rules, just the same.

Personally, for sheer semi-controlled mayhem and incendiary output, I always thought a gig at Survival Research Labs would be the bees knees.

But for a "total rejection of mainstream culture", my dream would be to spend a couple of days alone on top of Harney Peak with a drum and some mushrooms.

Maybe a night alone in the bottom of a canoe in the middle of a lake in the Adirondacks, looking at the sky and listening to the loons.

Hell, just go a week with no computer, no TV, no radio, no car, no periodicals, and without buying anything. That will get you the hell out of mainstream culture in a flash, and it costs nothing.

Noise, you can get anywhere. Quiet's what's hard to find these days.

Different strokes.

"Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules."

R. Diddy--

So?

I know a lot of the utopian rhetoric around Burning Man makes people want to debunk or deflate it, and it's good that happens. But the fact that it's "just" a party (or, as Russell says, that OMG there are rules) isn't a reason to blow off the significance of the event-- it's the whole reason it matters.

You have a bunch of people with basically the same motivations and priorities as the crowd at Mardi Gras or any other big party, and yet what you get out is different from Mardi Gras in some specific cool ways.

...my dream would be to spend a couple of days alone on top of Harney Peak with a drum and some mushrooms.

I want to party with you, cowboy. (That would kind of screw up the whole "alone" part, but still...)

I went to Woodstock '94. That was cool, and in some ways similar to Burning Man, while very different in many others, I would think.

Taking your mom to Burning Man is awesome. I wouldn't take mine; she'd be a miserable pain in the a$$, but I have to assume your mom would be cool with it if you and she are considering it in the first place, Jacob.

russell: just go a week with no computer, no TV, no radio, no car, no periodicals, and without buying anything

Absolutely. Hard to do though, for most people. We're pack animals. We don't like doing stuff on our own. And we like to talk (incessantly) to other people about what we're doing.

It is a particularly libertarian event even though there are rules and law enforcement, in a way that is hard to explain except to people who have in fact spent a lot of time alone in the wilderness or heavily engaged in a serious counterculture. Many actions that would be dangerous to your social standing, self-image, or freedom to not be arrested are barely worthy of comment there, including but not limited to self-expression, body image, cultural identification, sexual orientation, sexual identity, personality, politics, or modes of thought.

Changing any of those things, even temporarily, in real life tends to be a major commitment with attendant risks, disapproval, costs, and likely involves a lot of work searching out people to help you with the changes.

Changing any of those things at Burning Man requires walking ten minutes to (say) Polyamorous Furry Transvestite Camp and finding one of a crowd of enthusiastic lunatics to help you try it on. Don't like it? Don't go back. Nobody will ever know and even if they did they won't care.

I don't tend to do those things because I'm busy reconstructing my life in more mundane but still fundamental ways. Like deciding that it was okay to ask someone to marry me, which - as expected - was far more transformative than a decision to dress up in women's clothes would have been.

So it's libertarian in social and cultural and personal ways, but not so much in economic ways, which we are all trained to think of as the only ways that matter, which turns out not to really be true.

Economically it's more like a communist state where everyone is required to pay about the same for the provision of (minimal) public services and nobody is allowed to buy or sell anything beyond that - those services being primarily toilets, but also medical services, law enforcement, administration, and art funding.

Not everything is about economics. Another good thing to learn (or be reminded of).

That would kind of screw up the whole "alone" part, but still...

Good company's always welcome. :)

Hard to do though, for most people. We're pack animals. We don't like doing stuff on our own. And we like to talk (incessantly) to other people about what we're doing.

This is an interesting set of points.

What I'd offer, not as a counterargument but just as another, complimentary point, is that the process of real individuation - really discovering and being who you are - is as much an inner journey as an outer one.

Even polyamorous furry transvestites can lay their own trip on you.

The project of "being yourself" has different aspects at different times of life, also. Sometimes it's a matter of constructing an identity, sometimes it's a matter of letting an identity (or any identity) slip away.

OK, I'm putting the bong down now.

Net/net, we're pack animals, but then again we're not.

Not everything is about economics.

Amen to that.

Existence precedes essence. Life, and the things that people do, precede the description of life and the things people do.

And money is a fiction, a handy shorthand we've invented, to help us exchange things of actual value more easily. It's handy, and it's handiness is the only real thing about it.

Now, really, I'm putting the bong down.

See, if we were having this conversation on the playa, you wouldn't feel the need to insert the "putting the bong down" disclaimers just for talking about stuff that actually matters - as opposed to political and economic matters that are much less important in real terms.

As I said, most people would be vastly happier if their friends were happier and nicer than if their salary was doubled (or their candidate was elected). We don't talk about that very much, and when we do we feel the need to apologize for doing so because serious people don't talk about that kind of thing.

I agree about the pack-animals-and-not thing to some extent, but for really a lot of people, it's hard to change without a lot of support and processing and talking about it. I'm more of a loner too, but we're aberrations.

On the other hand it is easy to be alone at Burning Man too. A friend of mine camped in walk-in camping on the periphery. His tent was hundreds of feet from anyone else's. Nothing was between him and the mountains but open desert. That's one way. Another almost unavoidable experience is to be out on the deep playa walking somewhere and find yourself alone in acres of empty space. At night you really are alone. I like standing out there with just a few people, miles from anything, with just distant neon and 95 different types of music fading in and out on the wind.

And still another way to be alone is to be in a major dust storm. You can be 5 feet from another person and unable to see them. If you're walking around, one second you can be on a street with structures and people all around you and the next you are in a cocoon barely bigger than your body with no idea which way you are facing or what is around you. You can be sitting with friends in a shade structure when a storm descends and have the entire outside world cut off for hours on end.

I suspect you'd have a very interesting time there, russell. One thing about the crowds is that they tend to be very respectful. There are few drunks and very little belligerence compared to (say) music festivals. There are almost no fights. There is so much space that people will rarely press in on you, even for the major events. I don't like crowds either.

People focus on the nudity and the drugs and all that, but that really has nothing to do with my experience. I'm there for the stupendous quantities of meat, the chance to hang out and work hard with a bunch of people I really like and trust, to spend time with my wife & brother-in-law, and to fool around with electrical projects. And see a lot of cool stuff on fire. I'm pretty boring but I have a really good time.

sounds like a blast!

believe me, any comments i'm making here should not be construed as a criticism of the burning man. any opportunity to stretch mind, body, or spirit is a good thing.

glad you're back!

"Not everything is about economics. Another good thing to learn (or be reminded of)."

I was in an online discussion with an economic libertarian and I posed the question: "What is an economy for, anyway?" He reacted as if it was silly to ask such a question.

Why is it that so many people NEED to say something about something they have yet to experience.... and most of the time... disregard or negate the comments from those who have experience in the subject?

It's a misconception that everyone at BMan is an x-addled raver.

I never took a poll, but my husband and I don't do drugs and we hate techno. We went to Burning Man every year from 2003 to 2007. About half the people in my camp typically got a little high (x, pot) a couple times during the week, certainly not the whole time and certainly not out-of-their minds stoned. And getting really drunk out there is horrid. You do it once and never again.

Erin,
Thanks for speaking your experience.
That is also what I experienced.

Andrew Sullivan noticed.

You're a drug fiend, hippie.

He's entitled to his opinion, and me to mine.

"Did I mention that they're all really happy? They're happy, I think, because nobody is telling them what to do, and it turns out that when nobody is telling anyone what to do, everybody is really, really nice. People are nice. OK, there are jerks. But it demonstrates that under the right conditions - and not necessarily conditions of great comfort or leisure - people can be really nice. They can be really happy. They can get big things done."

Can we mention the elephant in the room? Burning Man is a white event, or at least a predominantly non-NAM event. Is it any surprise that a "counter-cultural" event that looks like Portland, Oregon is going to feel like a bunch of "nice people" who all get along? Burning Man is the counter-cultural equivalent of suburbia, of white flight. It it much easier to set up a libertarian paradise without diversity. It's what Steve Sailer and John Derbyshire have called "Libertarianism in One Country", just writ even smaller: "Libertarianism Among SWPLs".

The (voluntary) Burning Man census reported 80% white, 20% person of color among returns in 2007. The US population is about 75-80% white.

In other words, you have no idea what you're talking about.

So an event that is 80% white is not predominantly white?

The 2008 census numbers have the U.S. white population at 68%. Of the surrounding states, California is at 42%, Nevada 65%, Arizona 64%; Utah and Idaho have much higher white populations, but I will venture that Mormons from Utah are not filling the ranks of BR participants. So, yes, whites are overrepresented at BR.

The BR spin-off events in other regions are held in: Oregon, Seattle, Michigan, Utah, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, North Carolina. For better or worse, BR is very much an event defined by white culture. I am not calling it exclusionist or anything like that; I am simply making the point (which is not refuted by the presence of a minority of NAMs) that many of its defining characteristics are not unrelated to its being a largely homogeneous event, and that the celebrations of how every gets along in this ad hoc, experimental libertarian paradise are ignoring or not noticing this salient aspect of the event.

Thanks for this. Andrew Sullivan posted a very condescending commentary that missed the mark entirely. Burning Man has both no meaning and every meaning. And come by our camp in Kidsville next year and make a sock monkey at 5:30 and D! Camp Hot Monkey Sox, since 2001...

"Physical conditions suck. But everyone is really, really happy anyway."

Sounds somewhat like just another day for many people over here in India.

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